In Australia, an International Women's Conference charts new directions

BRISBANE, Australia - Mapping a new path for women in the coming millennium, an international women's conference here focused on forging new partnerships among diverse sectors of society, taking practical measures to promote the advancement of women, and making spiritual and moral values the key to consolidating gains.

Organized by the Office for the Advancement of Women of the Bahá'í community of Australia, the conference was titled "Partnerships for the Next Millennium" and it drew a wide range of speakers and participants from Australasia and beyond.

Held 16-18 September 1999, the conference was attended by more than 450 women and men from at least 15 countries, making it one of the largest and most global women's events ever held in Australia.

It was also among the most diverse of such gatherings; almost one-third of the participants were indigenous Australians, an inclusiveness that was a key goal and major feature of the conference. According to organizers and participants, the variety of individuals, groups and points of view at the gathering broke new ground here.

"This conference will be a turning point towards the next level of women's development," said Fiona Krautil, director of the Australian Affirmative Action Agency, who was a plenary speaker. Ms. Krautil noted that the conference was not just about diversity but about "valuing diversity," saying the distinctive qualities of women, particularly in relation to men, must be accepted and appreciated at all levels of society.

Forging new partnerships, as the Conference title implies, was a major theme, and accepting and valuing diversity underlies that process, said Ms. Krautil and others. In addresses by some 15 plenary speakers, as well as in 70 or so smaller scheduled workshops and seminars, the advantages, processes and practicalities were outlined for the forming of partnerships between various sectors within the women's movement - and with outside groupings of civil society and government.

The types of partnerships discussed included not only women-to-women and women-to-men, but also alliances with businesses, government, and like-minded non-governmental organizations, as well as different cultures and spiritual groups.

"Partnerships are critical for bringing about lasting and positive change," said Katina Jones, chairperson of the Australian Bahá'í Committee for Advancement of Women and managing director of EQUALS International Pty Ltd, an international training and development company. "We are seeing the increasing need, on a global scale, to form strategic partnerships with our colleagues and counterparts. These partnerships need to be developed in all areas of our lives, politically, socially, culturally, environmentally, and on a business level."

Practical points

Many of the speakers focused on the practical realities of forging partnerships.

Felicity Hill of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) suggested that the building of partnerships needs to begin among women. "We need to work in solidarity with each other," said Ms. Hill, who is director of the WILPF's United Nations Liaison Office in New York. "We need to recognize our differences and realize that there are economic and political structures in our way that we need to work together to break down."

Adrienne Ward, Westpac Banking Corporation's Queensland Manager for its Women in Business program, emphasized the need to develop strategic alliances and partners if women are to climb the corporate ranks. She told of Westpac's efforts to encourage women in the male-dominated banking industry through its use of a special mentoring program and said that mentoring can be a key means of developing new partners and alliances.

Dale Spender, an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland, spoke of the need for women to become conversant with computers and information technology. "To obtain a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, everyone, not just a privileged few, must be a digital citizen in a global village," said Dr. Spender. "While women have the qualities to succeed in this information age and while we are in the best position ever to develop our talents and to share an equal place in the public and private world, we still have to be vigilant, for ourselves and for the global community."

The conference itself, by virtue of its scope of participants and its organization, encouraged networking among women's groups, community groups, and among business and spiritual groups. Information booths set up by organizations such as AUSTCARE, Women's InfoLink and the International Women's Development Agency, furthered the networking process.

"Due to the conference I have made new partnerships with people in the justice field, women's interstate services, in private practice and other government areas," said Cheryl Hastie, a participant.

In addition to Australia, participants and speakers came from Canada, Fiji, France, Japan, Macedonia, Malaysia, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Vanuatu. Speakers included women in senior government appointments, well-known feminists, authors and prominent representatives from non-governmental organizations.

The conference also sought to prepare women for next year's "Beijing plus Five" deliberations at the United Nations in New York. A plan to send three young women from Australasia to the New York meeting, scheduled for June 2000, was announced.

Aboriginal Reconciliation

As noted, the conference also saw a high level of participation by Aboriginal women - and, indeed, it focused as a major theme on the process of national reconciliation with Australia's indigenous people.

"This conference was the first time that indigenous women felt truly equal," said Grace Smallwood, an indigenous health rights activist. "In this conference they have not been treated as tokens, but welcomed as full participants in every session and listened to."

For decades, Australia's indigenous people have faced discrimination and more - hundreds if not thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes for education, at great cost to their culture and heritage. Recently, a process of national reconciliation has been launched, which aims to improve relations between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community.

Indigenous Australian issues were featured throughout the conference duration. Aboriginal speakers were featured in two plenary sessions and at least five workshops addressed such issues as law and spirituality, education and women's business from an indigenous point of view.

"I hope that women take away the knowledge that we are unique people and have existed in this country for 60,000 years," said Jackie Huggins, a member of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. "We are the first Australians and represent just 2% of the Australian population. We can't do it by ourselves. Indigenous Australians need to form partnerships with women's groups, with faith groups and community groups that can assist us and join us in the true spirit of reconciliation."

Ms. Huggins said she believed the spirit of reconciliation was manifested at the conference. With this spirit, she said, "we can communicate, respect, acknowledge and trust each other as individuals," adding that if everyone appreciated this spirit, "then we wouldn't have the hatred, violence and discrimination that goes with being a member of a minority group."

In addition to featuring speeches and workshops on reconciliation, conference participants were offered the chance to express commitment to a "Draft Document for Reconciliation" - which essentially pledges an end to discrimination and a beginning of respect for each other's cultures.

Because of these efforts, Evelyn Scott, chairperson of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, who made an impromptu appearance at the conference, said she felt that the conference "was an important vehicle to communicate the indigenous agenda not only to Australian women, but to people attending from all areas of the world."

Many participants said they felt moved by the segments on indigenous issues. Glenys Charlton, herself indigenous, said it was a unique experience to feel valued and to be considered an integral part of such an event. "This conference allows indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders to be heard," she said.

Spiritual energy

Many participants said the conference was also distinctive for its emphasis on spiritual and moral values as they relate to women's issues. For example, more than a dozen of the speeches and workshops explicitly listed spirituality, ethics or religion in their titles. Further, other topics focused on education and communication, rather than political activism, suggesting new strategies for women to consolidate the gains that have been made in the acknowledgment of their rights worldwide.

"The conference had a strong spiritual, practical base," said June Perkins, an indigenous community development officer for the Australian Bahá'í community. "I learned that a lot of spiritual energy is generated when women come together."

Ann Hinton, who gave a workshop entitled "Developing Women's unique capacities - a spiritual quest," said she found the conference quite different from other women's events in that it showed how "the demand for change and justice and the intellectual approach can be tempered with love and spiritual values."

In her closing address, Lyn Lane, director of the Australian Bahá'í Office for the Advancement of Women, said the achievement of full equality between women and men is a prerequisite for world peace. The conference, she said, had been designed to promote equality by sharing new concepts, fostering new partnerships, and promoting the process of reconciliation with Australia's indigenous people.

"These outcomes are based on a new mindset, a new way of looking at issues; a new approach and a renewed commitment to the advancement of the world's women," said Ms. Lane. "The last three days have presented many personal and collective opportunities to connect across boundaries so that the common threads - that we can all work on together - can be woven into the bigger picture."

- Reported by Marie Chittleborough